Tag Archive | "Kim Jong-un"

A Conversation on THAAD from the Chinese Perspective

KEI Communications Director Jenna Gibson, host of the KEI podcast Korean Kontext, recently interviewed Yun Sun, Senior Associate with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center,  about the Chinese perspective on the THAAD missile defense system.

 The following is a partial transcript of that conversation. The rest of the episode can be found here.

 Jenna Gibson: Can you start by giving us kind of the big picture here from Chinese perspective? Why are they so opposed to that and how serious are they about trying to stop this deployment?

Yun Sun: Well, the Chinese explanation is that they believe this is a military threat to China’s nuclear capability. It’s because the radar could reach as far as 2,000 kilometers, so the Chinese view that their military deployment and their military exercises, basically any military operations inside mainland China, will not be able to escape the radar that the THAAD system will encompass, so they feel vulnerable. So, there is a security argument there.

There’s also a political argument where the Chinese argue that they see this as an effort by the United States to reinforce and re-strengthen their alliance relations with South Korea. And even with the possibility of the integrated missile defense system in Northeast Asia, the United States is intending to create a Northeast Asia NATO against China. That is a political dimension.

There is also an interesting leadership dimension. If you look at President Xi Jinping’s policy towards the Korean Peninsula since his inauguration in 2013, it is a very interesting shift as Xi Jinping had been trying to pull South Korea closer to China. So, there had been a deterioration of relations between China and North Korea, but at the same time, what forms a sharp contrast to that is a warming or rapprochement between Beijing and Seoul. So it’s almost like Xi Jinping’s personal foreign policy achievement that under him, South Korea has become much closer and much friendlier towards China. So, this THAAD deployment must have been very disappointing for the top Chinese leader, that this is his creation, his baby, and his campaign, and now it’s not coming to a good result.

Judging from the economic sanctions that Beijing has been willing to impose on South Korean, not only government, but primarily South Korean companies. I’d say that the Chinese are very serious about punishing South Korean entities for the deployment of THAAD. That represents Beijing’s determination and their seriousness to stop the deployment. But, I also think they understand that at this point, budget has already been allocated, the land has been secured, and the deployment has started. So, they have to understand that this is going to happen with or without their support or sanction.

 Jenna Gibson: So, things have seemed to come to a bit of ahead in a week or so with China allegedly cracking down on streaming of Korean TV shows, going after Lotte department stores, and possibly banning travel agencies from selling trips to Korea. Why has China seemingly stepped up their economic pushback against the missile defense system?

 Yun Sun: The timing is because the deployment is finally going to happen materially. In the past, although the decision to deploy the THAAD system was made almost last summer, it was a political decision. So the Chinese have been persistently using different policy instruments, trying to change the calculus, change the decision by the South Korean government. So, I would say that until the deployment is completed and until the South Korean government tells Beijing unequivocally that the decision is permanent and is final, the Chinese will not stop pushing. So before the deployment is completed, Beijing will keep pushing.

 Jenna Gibson: So, I have a personal theory. I think that China is killing two birds with one stone here. They are seizing upon an opportunity to cut down on the popularity of Korean pop culture in China, which Beijing has been upset about it for years. What do you think about that? Is this more than just the missile defense system?

 Yun Sun: If you look at how the Korean pop culture had been received and perceived in China by the Chinese government, you will find this interesting distinction that basically under President Lee Myung-bak, Korean pop culture was regarded as almost toxic in China. But, we will have to assume that this was very closely linked to the judgment that President Lee Myung-bak was pro-U.S. and anti-China.

Then, under President Park, the Chinese government policy towards Korean pop culture was actually quite positive. You’ll see Korean pop stars appearing on the Chinese New Year’s Festival gala on the Chinese Central Television, which is quite a high prominent treatment for foreign movie actors or pop stars.

So, I would say that the Chinese attitude towards Korean pop culture is still very much related to the political climate between the two countries. When the political relations are good, the Chinese are more likely to treat Korean pop culture with positive reception. But, when the political relations are bad, you will see that there is almost a ban for any Korean soap operas on Chinese TV today.

  Jenna Gibson: I will be really curious to see the things go forward, you know, how much are the Korean companies, how much is k-pop, how much are Korean dramas affected going forward? Is there any pushback? I’ll be really curious to follow that.

 Yun Sun: Yeah, so far, we haven’t seen that much of a pushback from the Chinese general public. You see this anti-Korea demonstrations in some of Chinese cities as well. You also see that one point, Korean cars were pretty popular in China, and now there are people who are vandalizing Korean cars on the street. So, what that says is the government’s ability to influence the public opinion on these matters is really strong.

There’s also the fact that local governments would assume that the central government want to see this anti-Korea sentiment bubbling from their locale. So sometimes, the central government may not be behind certain movement against a certain Lotte supermarket. But, a local government might be.

  Jenna Gibson: Now that the U.S. is clearly in the middle of this, too. We are the ones who are deploying THAAD and of course we are close allies with South Korea. So, what advice would you give to the United States in this situation? Is there a way to work with China on the North Korean issue right now? I know President Trump has been really emphasizing that China peace in solving the North Korean problem. Do you think that that’s the right way to go?

Yun Sun: I think the U.S. is doing the right thing. The deployment of THAAD is not about China, it is about North Korea. And if China doesn’t like it, it must address the source of the problem, which is the North Korean nuclear provocation. So, I think the U.S. is absolutely doing the right thing here.

And for the Trump administration, the U.S. does have this first mover advantage. After the Taiwan controversy, the Tsai Ing-wen phone call, and after President Trump’s comments in the past about how he is going to punish China on trade and is going to negotiate with China for a good deal, I think the Chinese are put on alert. They are very sensitive about what the U.S. might do to China next. And they are not in a very confident position to challenge President Trump. So that almost gives President Trump and his administration an edge, an advantage over China’s policy because China does not want to start a fight with the Trump administration either over North Korea or over the South China Sea.

So, I feel that there is room for the U.S. to push China. For example, there have been talks about more sanctions on North Korea, so China already preempted that. We are already suspending our co-import from North Korea for the rest of this year. What else do you want? You have to be very specific. If you ask us to cut our aid, especially the energy transfer and our food supply to North Korea, the United States will have to answer difficult questions like — what if this creates a humanitarian disaster in North Korea. So, I think the United States has to be very specific about it wants China to do and stand ready to answer the counter-questions that the Chinese will raise.

KEI Intern Jennifer Cho assisted with transcribing this interview.

Image from USFK’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Is Kim Jong-un Rational?

By Mark Tokola

When dealing with a country with a leadership that is as singularly top-down as North Korea, it is worthwhile to try to understand what makes their leader tick.  If we understood Kim Jong-un’s goals, preferences, and biases, we would be in a better position to understand whether negotiations on denuclearization are possible, and what the negotiating strategies might be.  And we might be able better to assess whether it would pose too great a risk for the U.S. and South Korea to tolerate an outcome that left Kim Jong-un in control of any nuclear weapons.

We have over time tolerated the acquisition of nuclear weaponry by the Soviet Union, China, and India in part because we assumed that they would accept the rationality of deterrence and would understand the catastrophic effects of a nuclear exchange.   Cold War logic was a cold logic, but one that prevented World War III.  If Kim Jong-un is, as some would have it, “irrational,” what does that mean?

The bizarre cult of personality that has held sway in North Korea for decades was well-entrenched before Kim Jong-un assumed power following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, on 17 December 2011.  If there had been no cult of personality centered on the myth of the powerful, benevolent, and self-sacrificing founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung — characteristics transmitted down through his son, Kim Jong-il — it would have been impossible for the then-young, and then-inexperienced Kim Jong-un to have risen to the throne.

The stories have been widely circulated of mystical events surrounding the birth of the three Kims (birds gathering, signs in the sky, trees blossoming, et al); their world-record golf scores; their invention of cures for cancer and super-fertilizers; and more.  The claims are held up for ridicule because they are ridiculous, but they all point in the direction of a family that is destined for hereditary leadership because of its super-human abilities.  This amounts to a virtual ideology, and one that Kim Jong-un inherited – not one he created.  B.R. Myers, in his book “The Cleanest Race,” summarizes the North Korean state ideology as, “The Korean people are too pure-blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.”  Kim Jong-un has little choice other than to perpetuate the state ideology.  What would he be without it?

It is possible that in the event of a coup in North Korea, the next leadership could claim to be the true inheritors of the banner of “Kim Il-sungism, Kim Jong-Ilism.”  This would provide a veneer of continuity and stability perhaps coupled, depending on circumstances, with a claim that a deposed Kim Jong-un had betrayed the course set by his grandfather and father.  Any excuse for such a claim could be fabricated.  The fall of Kim Jong-un would not necessarily mean the end of the North Korean regime.  It would, however, certainly mean the end of Kim Jong-un.  Whatever his policies are today, they are intended to prevent that from happening.

Whether Kim Jong-un himself is rational depends of course on how you define rational.  That may sound like picayunish wordplay but the point is serious.  Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnerman demonstrated, at length and with evidence, in a 1974 article, “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” that no one makes wholly rational decisions.  People rely on personal experience, imperfect analogies, and instincts.  There is evidence that people usually make decisions first, and then mentally assemble the evidence to justify their decisions.  Without these mental shortcuts, termed heuristics, we would not be able to make decisions.  People who have suffered damage to the parts of their brains where emotions reside are able to make lists of pros and cons, but find it very difficult to make choices because human decision-making is not wholly, or even primarily, a question of rationality.

Because rationality turns out to be an elusive subject, a simple working definition might be that rationality simply means being able to act in ways that accomplishes goals.  A person is “irrational” if they act in ways that fail to produce the outcomes they desire.  Kim Jong-un has survived five years in power, eliminated potential sources of opposition, carried forward with a nuclear weapons and missile program, has seemingly improved the economy by loosening state controls, and has rebuilt a party structure that his father had allowed to deteriorate.  He is reportedly capricious and short-tempered, and is clearly brutal, but it is probably no more accurate to call him “irrational” than it would be to agree that he is the world-beating genius North Korean propaganda puts forth.

Deciding whether Kim Jong-un is dangerous requires a different calculation than deciding if he is rational.  Would he, based on his experience and world view, calculate that in the event of a conflict, he would be more likely to survive if he unleashed nuclear war than if he surrendered?  Might he calculate that he is more likely to survive in power if he agrees to denuclearization?  Unless we assume that Kim Jong-un is able to make choices that he believes will improve his odds of survival, neither deterrence, sanctions, nor diplomacy are likely to bring about the results we desire.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flick Creative Commons.


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Could North Korea be Sent to the International Criminal Court Over Kim Jong-nam?

By Troy Stangarone

Under Kim Jong-un North Korea has continued to commit a wide range of human rights violations including political and religious discrimination, forced abductions, rape, and murder. These and other violations of the North Korean people’s rights have been well documented by both the UN Commission of Inquiry’s (COI) report and the continuing testimony of those who have escaped the regime. However, with it becoming increasingly clear that North Korea had a role in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam some have suggested that North Korea be investigated and tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Despite North Korea’s human rights violations, North Korea has faced few costs for its actions. The United States has sanctioned both Kim Jong-un and his sister personally for their role in North Korea’s human rights violations, but despite the evidence against the regime there have been few efforts to hold the regime accountable. The COI report suggested referring North Korea to the ICC and the UN General Assembly has passed resolutions encouraging the UN Security Council to refer North Korea to the ICC, but these efforts have yet to result in the case being referred to the ICC.

In recent days we have seen both the South Korean government and South Korean human rights and defector organizations call for the ICC to take up the case of North Korea’s human rights violations. However, the ICC may not be a viable venue for holding North Korea accountable.

The ICC was established by UN member states to try cases of human rights violations and other crimes that states either did not have the capacity or the will to try. However, the court only has jurisdiction over crimes committed on or after July 1 2002 and those crimes committed by a State that has accepted the court’s jurisdiction by acceding to the Treaty of Rome or that is referred to it by the UN Security Council.

In the case of North Korea, its human rights violations committed before July 1, 2002 would not be eligible for review by the ICC, but all of the crimes committed since then and under Kim Jong-un would be within the court’s jurisdiction. However, North Korea is not a party to the Treaty of Rome, nor is Malaysia, and for the court to investigate and try the regime the UN Security Council would have to refer to case to the ICC. There seems little hope of that occurring.

When the UN General Assembly urged the UN Security Council previously to refer North Korea to the ICC, the Security Council declined to take up the case. Despite North Korea conducting an assassination using a toxin banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention (which North Korea is also not a party to) that could have endangered other lives, it seems unlikely that the Security Council would change its stance over the murder of Kim Jong-nam. This is especially the case with Russia having recently withdrawn from the Treaty of Rome declaring that the ICC had become politicalized when efforts were begun to bring Russians before the court for their actions in the Ukraine. Similarly, African states have withdrawn from the court as it has gone after their leaders. In this environment, it seems unlikely that Russia or China would allow a referral of North Korea to take place.

If the ICC is not a viable option, what recourse does the international community have? There are a series of states that have universal jurisdictions which allows for the prosecution of crimes against humanity in national courts. Spain, for example, has tried a series of individuals from Latin America for human rights violations with its case against Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, being one of the higher profile examples. The indictment by a Spanish judge led to Pinochet being arrested in London and held for more than a year before being allowed to return to Chile where we was later tried for his crimes. While Kim Jong-un is unlikely to travel abroad and risk facing arrest, courts with universal jurisdiction could potentially be used to go after other North Korean officials who do travel abroad or to seek financial awards that seize North Korean assets.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from United Nation’s Photo on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Death of Kim Jong-nam: Implausible Deniability

By Mark Tokola

The story of Kim Jong-nam’s assassination took a bizarre turn with the announcement by Malaysian authorities that the cause of death was a banned chemical weapon, the nerve agent VX.  It is only supposed to be held in limited quantities by the United States and Russia. However, it has been reported that North Korea has been developing stockpiles of VX, among other substances banned by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, of which North Korea is not a party. The Malaysian announcement seems to have removed almost any remaining doubt that North Korea was responsible for the assassination, but why would North Korea choose to use such an exotic method when other, more prosaic, means of assassination were available?  And why choose a weapon that would be so obviously traced back to North Korea?

Kim Jong-nam’s assassination has now become reminiscent of the 2006 assassination of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko in London.  Litvinenko was also killed by exotic means, exposure to a rare radioactive substance, Polonium, which was placed in a teapot used by Litvinenko in a hotel restaurant.  Once the cause of death was established, it immediately placed suspicion on the Russian government.  Litvinenko was a critic of Vladimir Putin’s and had exposed mafia-like behavior on behalf of Russian officials.  Litvinenko, like Kim Jong-nam, had predicted that he might become the victim of a state assassination.  Russia denied any responsibility for Litvinenko’s death, but an inquiry conducted by the British government concluded in 2016 that Litvinenko had been killed by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), and probably by the direct order of Vladimir Putin.

The parallels between the two assassinations are strong.  Both Kim Jong-nam and Litvinenko were exiles from authoritarian regimes, both were killed by spy-novel type means that would clearly seem to indicate state-sponsored murder, and both of the authoritarian regimes that they hoped to have escaped denied any public responsibility for their deaths.  Nevertheless, an exhaustive UK official inquiry established high confidence in Russian culpability in Litvinenko’s death, and it is now close to straining credulity to conclude that anyone other than North Korea could have murdered Kim Jong-nam.

Why would Russia and North Korea have carried out assassinations in ways that would point back to them?  Because it serves their interests to appear responsible while at the same time formally denying responsibility.  Both Russia and North Korea claim to adhere to international law.  In an official statement, North Korea, brazenly, accuses the government of Malaysia of violating international law by conducting an autopsy and not releasing Kim Jong-nam’s body to them – without acknowledging that the body is in fact Kim Jong-nam’s.  If Russia and North Korea announced that they had carried out the assassinations, they would be guilty of breaches of international law, possibly leading to sanctions and certainly becoming subject to international opprobrium.  The countries in which Russia and North Korea had murdered their countrymen, the United Kingdom and Malaysia, would have grounds to take diplomatic countermeasures, perhaps expelling their diplomats, minimizing relations, or taking economic steps.  Denying responsibility allows Russia and North Korea to claim to be in compliance with international law, to defend themselves against diplomatic countermeasures, and to allow themselves to continue to draw support from those at home and abroad who prefer to ignore the evidence.

Leaving their fingerprints on the assassinations also has its purposes for Russia and North Korea.  It makes clear to current and potential defectors and dissidents that they can find no safety from retribution by living abroad.  It also signals to the world that Russia and North Korea have the means to project power, albeit in a heinous manner.  They can have it both ways.  Call it implausible deniability.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from David Stanley’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Family Matters: Kim Jong-un’s Siblings

By Juni Kim

Monday’s assassination of Kim Jong-un’s eldest half-brother Kim Jong-nam has been widely thought to have been carried out on the North Korean regime’s order, perhaps even coming from Kim Jong-un himself. If this proves to be true, the murder of Kim Jong-nam marks an infamous dip for the regime into fratricide. Kim Jong-un’s purge of his uncle Jang Song-taek in 2013 has demonstrated his willingness to kill family members, and his older brother’s murder will surely have significant implications in North Korea’s inner circles.

Kim Jong-nam was once seen as the heir apparent to continue the Kim dynasty, but his embarrassing and widely publicized attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyland in 2001 led to his eventual passing over for succession. While Kim Jong-nam had largely been living abroad in recent years, Kim Jong-un’s other known siblings have played various roles in Pyongyang politics. Below is a brief overview of the family line.

Kim Family Tree Darker

As a caveat, the number of romantic partners of Kim Jong-il and children he fathered has been subject to rampant speculation, and the true number of how many children the former North Korean leader had may never be known.

Kim Sol-song

Kim Jong-il’s eldest daughter and Kim Jong-un’s older half-sister Kim Sol-song was allegedly favored by her father and held high positions during his regime. Her current standing under her younger brother’s rule is uncertain, but she is likely to still hold influence in the regime’s inner circles. Some experts have speculated that her influence has diminished under Kim Jong-un in deference to the increased power role of her younger sister Kim Yeo-jong.

Kim Chun-song

Kim Jong-il reportedly had a second daughter with his wife Kim Young-sook named Kim Chun-song, though little is known of her and her current activity.

Kim Jong-chol

Kim Jong-chol, Kim Jong Il’s second-oldest son and Kim Jong-un’s full brother, was reportedly under consideration to be Kim Jong Il’s successor, but fell out of favor with the former North Korean leader for being “girlish.” Despite the slight, Kim Jong-chol appears to be in good standing with his younger brother. Lee Yun-keol of the Seoul-based North Korea Strategic Information Service Center stated that Kim Jong-chol had a hand in the purge of Kim Jong-il’s influential brother-in-law Jang Song-taek, which was orchestrated by Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-chol’s general disinterest in his country’s politics has also been widely reported. Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho, who defected late last year from the DPRK’s London Embassy, accompanied Kim Jong-chol on his visit to London to see an Eric Clapton concert in 2015 (video of Kim Jong-chol at the concert can be seen here). In a recent interview, Thae stated that Kim spoke little of Pyongyang politics during the trip and is “only interested in guitars and music.” According to Thae, Kim Jong-chol regularly plays with North Korea’s state-sponsored pop group “Moranbong Band” and is a skilled musician.

Kim Yeo-jong

Kim Jong-un’s younger full sister Kim Yeo-jong has had a prominent role in the Kim Jong-un regime. In November 2014, she became the Vice Director of the Workers Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, which handles state propaganda, and has reportedly purged senior officials. The younger Kim is frequently seen at public events accompanying her elder brother, and some commentators have speculated that she may be North Korea’s most powerful woman. In remarks made last month, Thae indicated that Kim Yeo-jong holds more influence over Kim Jong-un than his wife Ri Sol-ju, and that senior regime officials respect her position.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. Graphic by Juni Kim.


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The Murder of Kim Jong-nam

By Mark Tokola

According to news reports, Kim Jong-un’s brother, Kim Jong-nam, was murdered in Malaysia on February 13.  He reportedly died while being transported from the Kuala Lumpur airport to a hospital, apparently as the result of poisoning, which seems to be the preferred means for modern dictators to dispose of threats (see what has happened to Putin’s critics).  Details will emerge later, but it would be surprising if Kim Jong-nam was not killed on the orders of his brother, Kim Jong-un, given that North Korean agents have reportedly tried to assassinate Kim Jong-nam in the past.  In looking for a motive for the murder, there is a Latin phrase for it, “Qui bono?” (“Who benefits?”).  There are very few that would directly benefit from Kim Jong-nam’s death other than his half-brother in Pyongyang.

What can we say about the murder of Kim Jong-nam?  First, it seems probable that the motivation for the murder was a continuing sense of paranoia on the part of Kim Jong-un, which may be a well-placed paranoia.  Whether or not Kim Jong-nam was actively plotting against Kim Jong-un (and there is scant evidence of that), he provided an alternative for North Koreans who would want to depose Kim Jong-un.  Kim Jong-nam has been fairly quiet in his exile, but was quoted in the Japanese press in 2010 as saying he opposed dynastic succession in North Korea.  Since taking power in 2012, Kim Jong-un has been eliminating those he has perceived as threats: first his uncle, Jang Sung-taek in 2013, and now his brother, Kim Jong-nam in 2017.  Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Second, the murder of Kim Jong-nam may be interpreted as another North Korean affront to China.  Kim Jong-nam has been living mostly in Macau, certainly under Chinese protection, and was quoted in 2012 as saying that North Korea needed “Chinese-style economic reform.”  Some commentators have theorized that the government of China was keeping Kim Jong-nam in reserve with the option of helping him assume power if Kim Jong-un fell in the future.  Jang Sung-taek was too close to China for Kim Jong-un’s taste; the same may have been true of Kim Jong-nam.

People will remember Kim Jong-nam as the Kim brother who tried to visit the Tokyo Disneyland on a false passport.  He now is likely to also be remembered as another victim of Kim Jong-un’s ruthlessness.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Tom Frohnhofer’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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U.S.-Korea Relations: The Obama Years

By Troy Stangarone

Summing up a presidential legacy is a complex endeavor. There are countless details that are either unknown or just too difficult to fit into the flow of a single piece. There are choice that in the immediate term may seem wise, but in the hindsight of years less so. While mistakes today may come to be viewed as prudent years on. This is even more the case when it deals with only a single aspect of one part of the presidency, the relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea. A relationship that while vibrant and strong, is also inevitably tied to both countries’ relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

For the last eight years, we’ve seen a relationship that has grown beyond the Cold War confines of the threat from North Korea and that has begun to evolve into more of a partnership that works together both in the region and on the global stage. This shift was possible in large thanks to the relationship that the Obama administration inherited and the partners they had to work with in South Korea under the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations.

When President George W. Bush handed U.S.-Korea relations over to President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, he handed over an alliance that was in good shape. While the relationship between the United States and South Korea had been rocky at times during the early years of the Bush administration, even during those difficult times progress was made on the alliance. As a result President Obama inherited an alliance that was already growing and changing as Bush administration left a legacy of a completed but unratified free trade agreement with South Korea (KORUS FTA), and agreements to move U.S. Forces Korea from Seoul to Camp Humphreys near Pyongtaek and to transfer wartime control of South Korean forces back to the South Korean government.

Over the last eight years, the Obama administration has built on the foundations of the alliance it inherited. While the alliance remains rooted in the United States’ commitment to defend South Korea against North Korean aggression, the Obama administration has worked with South Korea to move the alliance beyond deterring North Korea. Perhaps most critically in this was the administration’s support for Lee Myung-bak administration’s efforts to see South Korea contribute more to the global community. As part of these efforts, the Obama administration supported Seoul’s efforts to host the G-20 leaders summit in 2010 and asked South Korea to host the second Nuclear Security Summit as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to enhance global nuclear security.

Beyond summits, the Obama administration has sought to increase cooperation with South Korea in a wide range of areas that are now referred to as the New Frontier issues and include areas such as cyber security, climate change and global health. As an example, in the area of global heath South Korea worked with the United States and other nations to deal with the Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014.

In the economic relationship, the Obama administration engaged South Korea in additional negotiations to address concerns related to trade in autos with the KORUS FTA. After reaching an agreement, the KORUS FTA went into effect on  March 15, 2012. The administration also negotiated a new 123 agreement to continue civilian nuclear cooperation between the United States and South Korea.

At the core of the alliance, defense cooperation, the administration has proceeded and largely concluded the efforts begun by the Bush administration to move U.S. troops from Seoul to Camp Humphreys. It also updated the decision to transfer wartime operational control to South Korea by moving the agreement from a deadline based transition to a conditions based agreement that would implement the transition only once South Korea has developed the intelligence and command infrastructure necessary to undertake operational control of forces.

If the relationship with South Korea has been a boon for Obama, than it is the relationship with North Korea where the long eye of history may have more to say in the years to come. While he inherited a North Korea that had already tested a nuclear weapon, North Korea has gone on to conduct four additional nuclear tests during his time in office and he will pass along to the Trump administration a much more dangerous North Korea than he inherited.  Many have criticized the Obama Administration’s “strategic patience” approach, but alternatives are limited if the goal is a denuclearized North Korea within a short time span.  There may have been other tools that the Obama Administration used over the past eight years that are not in the public domain to prod change in North Korea that only time and change in North Korea may tell.

Much as in the case of South Korea, leadership has likely played a role in the deteriorating situation with North Korea. If President Obama was fortunate to have willing partners in South Korea, the death of Kim Jong-il left a much more aggressive Kim Jong-un in charge of North Korea. While Kim Jong-il famously slapped away Obama’s inaugural offer of talks, it is unclear if diplomacy could have played much of a role in convincing Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program.

Shortly after Kim Jong-un came to power, the Obama administration negotiated a moratorium on missile launches that North Korea would soon violate and despite efforts by the Park Geun-hye administration in South Korea to build relations with North Korea Kim Jong-un instead chose to greet her administration with confrontation through an ICBM test, a nuclear test, and the withdrawal of North Korean workers from the joint North-South industrial complex in Kaesong. It is perhaps telling that a U.S. administration that, despite domestic opposition, negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran and reopened relations with Myanmar and Cuba found North Korea an unwilling partner for improving relations.

With the path to negotiations closed the administration instead pursued a course of increasing pressure on North Korea. It’s perhaps most significant achievement on this end was the development of increased cooperation with China on sanctions in the United Nations. While the robust sanctions negotiated after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January of 2016 were found to have been flawed, those sanctions were revised after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test to close loopholes and being to bring real pressure on North Korea.

In addition to international sanctions, the administration took advantage of new sanctions authorities granted to it by Congress, though perhaps reluctantly and not to the degree critics of the administration might have hoped. Perhaps most significantly on this front, the administration has sanctioned both Kim Jong-un and his sister personally for their roles in human rights violations in North Korea.

Perhaps the last legacy item for the Obama administration in regards to North Korea has been its efforts to increase the deterrent capabilities of the alliance. It reached an agreement with South Korea to expand the range of South Korean missiles to allow Seoul to be able to target any area of North Korea and to help facilitate its “kill chain” concept of being out to take out North Korean nuclear facilities prior to an imminent attack. On the more controversial side, it also worked with Japan to develop new defense guidelines that would allow Japan to play a more active role if the U.S. were to come under attack and which would also aid in a contingency on the Korean peninsula and for the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to protect parts of South Korea against North Korean missile attacks.

For President Obama it will be a strong legacy he leaves with South Korea, a nation that he visited more often than all but France, the UK, Germany, and Mexico and developed close personal relationships. It is North Korea where time may judge him more harshly, or depending on the actions taken by Kim Jong-un and the Trump administration come to view him as prudent. By his own standards, President Obama has done well.  He once described his foreign policy philosophy as looking for singles and doubles, and “don’t do stupid s@#%.” By that standard, President Obama has managed U.S.-Korea relations well. He’s made progress on a range of issues and avoided serious mistakes, and despite challenges presented by North Korea, he stands to hand the alliance over to his successor, Donald Trump, much as President George W. Bush did to him, in good shape.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from The White House’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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16 Issues for the Trump Administration to Consider in Developing a New North Korea Policy

By Troy Stangarone

As the United States transitions from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, there is significant uncertainty regarding the future direction of U.S. foreign policy. During the campaign, President-elect Trump broke from many of the orthodoxies shared by Republicans and Democrats in the area of foreign policy and since the election has begun to potentially shift gear on some of his campaign pledges. His ultimate foreign policy is still largely unknown.

One area where there will be significant interest in the new administration’s future policy direction will be North Korea. Pyongyang’s increasing efforts to develop both a workable nuclear warhead and multiple delivery systems has made North Korea a problem that will need to be addressed by the Trump administration. While it is still unclear if President-elect Trump will merely tweak existing policy or implement policies that rethink U.S. foreign policy and specifically how the United States addresses the challenges presented by North Korea. If the Trump administration were to consider a significant overhaul of U.S. policy on North Korea, here are 16 issues the incoming administration should consider in developing a new policy:

North Korea and the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy Priorities

The most important question for the new administration to consider is where North Korea is on the list of foreign policy challenges? While North Korea’s growing weapons programs should make it a priority, other challenges could come to dominate the administration’s agenda and push North Korea down the list. Any White House where decision making is centralized can only handle two or three significant foreign policy issues at a time. If North Korea is not in that top tier, the administration will have to set a policy more in line with an issue of lesser priority. However, if the Trump administration is willing to delegate authority, more issues could be handled simultaneously.

Beyond shaping the approach and resources dedicated to addressing the North Korean nuclear issue, the level of priority the administration gives to resolving the crisis will impact how it handles other foreign policy issues. For example, if North Korea is a top priority for the Trump administration, it impacts how the administration handles relations with China. Most experts consider China a key player in resolving the nuclear issue, something President-elect Trump himself stated during the election. If the administration decides to push for a resolution to the nuclear issue early in its term it will need to consider developing a China policy that will elicit the cooperation needed rather than one that will push China to use North Korea as a wedge against the United States. As with much in life, foreign policy is about tradeoffs and compromises because everything cannot be achieved at once.

Where is North Korea in Terms of U.S. Priorities with China?

If North Korea is among the United States’ foreign policy priorities as one key consideration, the same is true for how the Trump administration will prioritize North Korea among its other challenges in its relationship with Beijing. During the campaign, President-elect Trump ran on a platform of bringing back U.S. jobs and getting a fair deal for American workers. While not a major campaign issue, the South China Sea and China’s military modernization are likely to remain a priority for a Trump administration. Another major issue in the relationship is climate change and the Paris accords. Since election, President-elect Trump has suggested that he might seek to reshape the United States relationship with Taiwan. If the new administration places a priority in its relations with China on addressing trade relations and seeks to withdraw the United States from the Paris accords, it might find Beijing less than willing to help address North Korea. If it seeks to redefine relations with Taiwan, Beijing’s willingness to cooperate on North Korea might be even less.  At the same time, if it prioritizes North Korea over other issues in its relations with China, it may need to refrain from engaging in trade disputes with China or other controversial issues to elicit Beijing’s support for a more effective stance against Pyongyang. Again, the priorities in the U.S. relationship with China will impact the type of North Korea policy the United States will be able to pursue.

How Likely China is to Squeeze North Korea?

China is seen as the key to the North Korea issue. While China has worked with the United States to pass tougher new sanctions on North Korea after each of its nuclear tests this year and has, to an extent, implemented those sanctions, there is a perception that China is not doing as much as it could or not stringently enforcing sanctions. If the new administration views China as the key, how likely is China to truly squeeze North Korea and what might incentivize it to do so? Similarly, if China will not truly squeeze North Korea and the new administration determines that the United States does not have acceptable leverage to shift China’s position that would necessitate a different approach to the North Korea than if the administration determines that China will squeeze North Korea or that it has sufficient and acceptable leverage to do so.

Does Russia Have a Role to Play?

Much like President Obama early in his administration, President-elect Trump has suggested that the United States should have better relations with Russia. While Russia was part of the Six Party Talks, it was not a primary player in the negotiations. Could Russia play a larger role or could it be a potential spoiler?

If relations with Russia improve, the administration will need to determine if Russia could manage a larger role. However, if Russia demurs, it will be important to consider how Russia could impede the process. In the two most recent UN sanctions debate Russia held up the process to water down the sanctions. If China were to come on board for stronger sanctions, including cutting off North Korea’s oil, Russia could serve as an alternative source. While Russia has its own reasons for not wanting to see North Korea’s program advance, Putin has shown a willingness to back outsiders when he thinks it could bring a geopolitical advantage. The one challenge for Russia would be keeping North Korea in line, as it has historically been a less pliant client than Russia’s more recent efforts at developing useful clients.

What Type of Deal is the Trump Administration Willing to Cut?

In the past, the United States has sought the complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament of North Korea. Should that remain the goal of the United States? Should the United States pursue only a freeze or a final deal that addresses the nuclear issue and a wider range of issues? In light of prior efforts to negotiate with North Korea, should Pyongyang also be prohibited from utilizing nuclear power or should it be allowed to maintain certain aspects of a civilian nuclear program? What elements should be in any agreement with North Korea? Should it only cover the nuclear program or should it include elements such as a peace treaty ending the Korean War? What type of concessions would the administration be willing to make to North Korea to secure an agreement? These are just a few of the elements of a potential deal that the administration will need to consider.

What Would a Trump Administration Be Willing to Trade Away?

The art of any good deal is finding a way to meet the needs of the negotiating parties in a manner that is acceptable to all involved. Over the last three decades the complexity of what is acceptable for North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan has kept a comprehensive deal out of reach. If the Trump administration decides to enter into negotiations with North Korea, they will have to determine what they are willing to give Pyongyang in return for it abandoning its nuclear program.

In the past, there has been an assumption that North Korea wanted some combination of recognition by the United States, security guarantees for the regime, and energy and economic assistance. In regards to security, North Korea has often called for the end of U.S. troops on the peninsula and the abdication of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. While the administration should not trade away items which would remove the ability of South Korea and Japan to defended themselves against North Korean aggression after any deal, it will need to give consideration to what hard choices it is willing to make to reach an agreement. If it is unwilling to take minimal steps such as provide some type of security guarantee or recognition of the regime, a policy other than negotiation will likely be needed.

The Importance of U.S. Allies to North Korea Policy

In the campaign President-elect Trump broke from long-standing U.S. foreign policy and suggested that he saw relationships with allies as more transactional in nature than as part of a broader relationship where the United States will live up to its commitments to defend allies. Since the campaign, some of that rhetoric has been walked back, but in dealing with North Korea the administration will need to determine how it views alliances and what their role is in tackling the North Korean nuclear issue.

If the Trump administration is going to “re-baseline” U.S. alliances as incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has suggested, the administration will need to determine what advantages does having supportive allies in South Korea and Japan bring in terms of military and diplomatic contributions. What would be the costs to the United States of pursing a more independent or transactional policy in dealing with North Korea, specifically if the U.S. was no longer willing to assure allies that their concerns would be met. What is the tradeoff in having willing partners in dealing with North Korea as opposed to partners who might become more aggressive in pursuing their own interests solely if the U.S. were to as well?

What Are the Military Options?

As North Korea continues to make advancements on its missile program calls for the United States to take preemptive action before North Korea is able to demonstrate or utilize an ICBM that could reach the United States will likely grow. What are the merits and potential downsides of either blowing up a North Korean ICBM on the launch pad prior to liftoff or shooting a North Korean ICBM down in flight? If the U.S. choose to preempt a launch how would North Korea respond and what are the prospects for escalation? If the U.S. were to shoot down a North Korean ICBM, a successful intercept would likely be a strong deterrent, but what would be the consequences of a failure to intercept the missile?

Perhaps more boldly, are there other military options on the table such as covert operations that could slow the program or remove key individuals that could change North Korea’s decision structure. If you engage in military operations beyond those that are clearly defensive in nature, such as shooting down an ICBM on a trajectory for the United States or one of its allies, what are the prospects that China would be drawn into any escalation in conflict?

For all of these options, the administration would need to determine if they are willing to accept the risks and costs that any military option from shooting down an ICBM to engaging in a new war would entail not only for the United States, but also for our allies in the region. The bottom line for the administration will be is there a military option that has a high degree of success that will also minimize the potential for significant retaliation on the part of North Korea.

Is the Obama Strategy Working?

There is a tendency for incoming administrations to follow an “anything but” the previous administration policy, especially if the prior administration is one of the opposing party. Sometimes a change of course is good policy, but sometimes as President Obama found with aspects of President George W. Bush’s terrorism policy the process of governing means embracing some of your predecessor’s legacy. President-elect Trump has already demonstrated on healthcare policy that he is willing to keep some of the Obama policy in place, even on an issue that is unpopular with his party, so there is no reason to believe that a Trump administration would simply abandon the policy of the Obama administration.

What are the key characteristics of that policy? First, maintain tight policy coordination with U.S. allies. Second, increase the alliance’s defensive capabilities. Third, increase pressure on North Korea through sanctions and other measures? Fourth, work to discourage those who support the North Korean regime from doing so. Lastly, be open to negotiations with North Korea if those talks are designed to address the nuclear issue. If this is a sound approach, rebranding may be all that is needed. If it is not working, what steps might be more successful?

Is the Iran Example a Useful Model?

President-elect Trump has described the Iran nuclear deal as one of the worst deals he has ever seen. However, during the election, Secretary Hillary Clinton’s team had made clear that they saw it as a model for dealing with North Korea. While more nuanced than this, the Iran model is the idea of imposing crippling economic sanctions to force North Korea into negotiations over its nuclear program.

In the case of Iran, it was allowed to maintain parts of its nuclear program and the agreement was only for ten years. North Korea has stated that they will not negotiate an Iran style deal, but the final details of the agreement point to issues that the Trump administration will need to consider in any negotiation. Will the administration keep to the standard of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear program? Or, should Pyongyang be allowed to maintain parts of its nuclear program as was the case with Tehran. This was part of the Agreed Framework, but North Korea ultimately cheated on that deal. Alternatively, is there already a mismatch in terms of the value of North Korea’s nuclear program? Pyongyang likely believes it should get a better deal for actual nuclear weapons and the administration likely believes that North Korea should receive more stringent conditions for having developed them. Also, the administration will need to thoroughly consider in what ways North Korea differs from Iran, to see how useful any lessons from that experience may be. If the two situations are different enough, there may be few useful lessons. Alternatively, if the Iran model is not a good one, what would a different approach look like? These are the types of questions the Trump administration will need to ask as it decides whether or not to utilize the Iran precedent.

How Stable is North Korea?

Since the end of the Cold War there have been predictions that North Korea was near collapse. While many other Cold War regimes have collapsed, or undertaken significant economic reforms such as China and Vietnam, North Korea has taken only minimal steps towards reform.

Historically stability mattered because the sense was that, if the regime was on the verge of collapse, there was little reason to negotiate with it or make a substantial offer for the nuclear program. However, the Trump administration should consider the regime’s stability for two reasons. If the regime is stable, pushing it in the hopes of collapse may not yield the desired result, but a stable regime could be in the position to reach a deal, even if it is not an optimal one for the United States and its allies. If the regime is unstable, negotiations will have little effect as a weak regime would be unable to make the political choices needed to give up or significantly reduce the nuclear program and survive. Depending on the perception of the stability of the regime, it impact whether engagement or pressure is likely to be a more useful tool, while the wrong assumption could lead the administration to develop a flawed policy.

How Susceptible is North Korea to Sanctions?

North Korea is less connected to the global economy than most other nations and survived a famine in the 1990s in which over a million North Koreans may have starved to death. Iran’s economy was much more open to the global economy and therefore more susceptible to sanctions than North Korea, and it still took three years after sanctions were placed on Iran’s oil to negotiate an agreement on its nuclear program.

If North Korea is less susceptible, the Trump administration will need to consider what that means in regards to timelines for action on North Korea. The administration will also need to give consideration to what areas North Korea may be most susceptible to sanctions and what types of sanctions would be most likely to be effective in that area. While the focus has been on coal as in recent years as that has been North Korea’s primary export, there may be other areas or types of sanctions the administration should consider. For example, imposing more sanctions on financial institutions that have dealings with North Korea. At the same time, it will need to consider the costs that the regime is willing to bear to complete its nuclear program before the sanctions force it to do otherwise. A nation is willing to let a significant portion of its population starve to death is likely willing to bear a significant cost.

Will North Korea Give Up Its Nuclear Weapons?

Negotiating a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue is only possible if North Korea is willing to engage in talks on the dismantlement of its nuclear and missile program. For much of the Obama administration the belief was that North Korea was not. Discerning North Korea’s intentions helps to shape whether the Trump administration should seek to engage or pressure Pyongyang.

If the Trump administration reaches the same conclusion as the Obama administration, seeking talks with Pyongyang would be of minimal utility. Instead the administration would need to develop a program designed to create conditions which might change the regime’s perspective, similar to the case of Iran, or take steps to enhance U.S. and allied defense so as to deter North Korea from using its nuclear weapons. Both of these options could also be taken simultaneously.

However, if the regime believes that North Korea would be open to a deal, talks should be the primary course of action. The key for any negotiations would be finding a way to ensure that they were not a play for time by North Korea to finish its nuclear program while reducing pressure on the regime.

Why Does North Korea Want Nuclear Weapons?

The North Korean regime has suggested that it has developed its nuclear weapons program to protect itself from U.S. hostility, but the reunification of the Korean peninsula on North Korean terms still remains a goal of the regime. Determining whether the regime views the nuclear weapons as the key to its survival or a tool to achieve political ends could have a significant influence on how a policy is shaped. If nuclear weapons are synonymous with regime survival in Pyongyang, it may be impossible to provide the assurances needed to convince them to give up their weapons. However, if the nuclear weapons are for a political end, demonstrating through pressure that even with nuclear weapons that goal is not achievable without threatening the regimes survival might create room for negotiations. It is a difference that could shape the policy the administration chooses.

Are Human Rights Part of the Equation?

In the last year the United States has placed sanctions on Kim Jong-un and his sister for the regime’s violation of human rights. It is unclear how the Trump administration will approach the issue of human rights, but in the case of North Korea they will have to decide if the issue of human rights and sanctions related to North Korea’s human rights violations should be linked to North Korea’s nuclear program. If the administration does wish to link the issues, it will need to consider whether human rights sanctions encourage or discourage North Korea from engaging on the nuclear program. At the same time, it will have to determine if it would be willing to remove the sanctions to make progress on the nuclear issue in the absence of progress on human rights in North Korea.

If You Break North Korea, Are You Willing to Fix It?

In the run up to the Iraq War, Colin Powell famously cautioned President George W. Bush that if “you break it, you own it.” A similar consideration should apply to any aggressive sanctions policy or kinetic action that the Trump administration decides to take in regards to North Korea. In the case of North Korea, regime stability will always likely be a question. How much pressure can it stand before collapse does ensue? So far, China has pushed back on any sanctions that it thought might truly endanger the regime. Nevertheless, China could miscalculate the pressure the regime can withstand, or preemptive military action could precipitate a conflict that leads to collapse. If there is good reason to believe North Korea is about to strike either the United States or its allies, action will need to be taken. However, if the administration decides to pursue significant pressure, it also need to consider what actions it would take if the pressure proves to be too much. Would it be willing to contribute to rebuilding the North under a unified Korea, and would it be willing to actively support South Korean claims to sovereignty over the North in the face of strong Chinese resistance. If so, then more aggressive measures may be advisable, but if not a more gradual approach may be called for with North Korea.

While this is not necessarily an exhaustive list, it is designed to show how complex the North Korean nuclear crisis is and how different understandings of issues can influence how policy would develop. To see this, we look at how different outcomes would occur given variations on two issues: North Korea’s willingness to negotiate and China’s willingness to pressure North Korea.

If the Trump administration believes that North Korea will not negotiate on its weapons program and that China will not truly pressure the regime, than that would argue for a policy of increased deterrence. However, if the administration believes that China would pressure North Korea further but North Korea will not negotiate, that impacts policy more generally towards China to ensure that Beijing remains onboard in pressuring North Korea. The caveat, of course, is where then North Korea fits in regards to the administration’s priorities. If North Korea is the priority, that then affects how the Trump administration approaches China on trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea or other issues. Ultimately, solving the North Korean nuclear issue is more complex than simply a question of whether to sanction the regime more or engage in negotiations.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Uri Tours photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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10 Issues to Watch for on the Korean Peninsula in 2017

By Mark Tokola, Phil Eskeland, Troy Stangarone, Jenna Gibson, Kyle Ferrier, and Juni Kim

The Korean peninsula was dominated by unexpected events in 2016. North Korea began the year with a nuclear test that merely foreshadowed a year of significant advancements in its nuclear program rather than its traditional pattern of using tests to provoke a cycle of crisis and negotiations. In response, the Park Geun-hye administration closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex in what would become the first of a series of significant moves to tighten sanctions on North Korea bilaterally by a series of nations and through the United Nations.

On the political front, 2016 saw the surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States on a platform that may remake parts of U.S.-Korea relations while redefining the role of the United States in East Asia. Closer to home in Seoul, South Korea was rocked by a political crisis that led to the impeachment of Park Geun-hye.

As 2017 begins the consequences of those events and others from 2016 will begin to play out on the Korean peninsula and Kim Jong-un has again begun the year with a shock announcing that North Korea is close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). With that in mind, here are 10 issues to follow that will have an impact on the Korean peninsula in the year to come:

Political Dynamics and the Presidential Election in South Korea

Perhaps no issue will have more impact on the Korean peninsula this year and in the years to come than the resolution of the current political crisis in South Korea. Depending on when and how the Constitutional Court rules on the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, South Korea could have a new president as early as this spring or enter into a period of extended political uncertainty with President Park remaining in power until February 25 of 2018.

These political dynamics have implications for South Korea and the peninsula beyond whether Park Geun-hye leaves office early or serves the remainder of her term. The political uncertainty around the impeachment means that needed economic reforms will likely be delayed and that policies enacted by the interim administration or late in the Park administration could be subject to quick reversal after the question of impeachment is resolved. The current environment could also lead to a move towards constitutional reform, an issue that had already been gaining steam prior to the move towards impeachment.

If President Park’s impeachment is upheld a snap 60 day campaign could change the dynamics of the election and favor a candidate who might not ordinarily have performed as well under an ordinary campaign. It may also aid a move towards more populist positions, as is becoming an increasing trend around the world, but in the case of South Korea may come from left rather than the right as we have seen in Europe and the United States.

The election also holds the potential to see a significant shift in policy related to North Korea and Japan, among other issues to watch in 2017.

The Trump Administrations Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia

For the first time since the end of the Korean War, there is significant uncertainty on how U.S. foreign and security policy will develop in East Asia. After decades of bipartisan understanding of both the benefits of the region to the United States and the basic policies that should be put in place to promote U.S. interests, the Trump administration will come into office having campaigned for significant change in U.S. policy and with an air of uncertainty in the region on the shape of U.S. policy to come.

In the campaign, President-elect Trump seemed to place a greater emphasis on international economic issues and question the utility of U.S. alliances and whether countries such as South Korea were contributing enough financially to the deployment of U.S. troops. He also suggested a willingness to withdraw U.S. troops and allow South Korea and Japan to defend themselves with nuclear weapons.

Since the election, we have seen President-elect Trump reaffirm the United States commitment to defend South Korea, but also a willingness to change the nature of the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, potentially increasing tensions with China. For the Korean peninsula, the priorities the administration sets in the region, including whether China or North Korea will be a priority, as well as whether it chooses to purse those policies through negotiation or confrontation will have significant impact on events on the Korean peninsula, including how willing China is to cooperate in pressuring North Korea to denuclearize.

As the Trump administration sets out its new policies, we should expect there to be significant changes that could unsettle the region early in the administration. However, as events and structural challenges in the region necessitate, there will likely be a shift towards a more traditional U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Trump Administration Asia Economic Policy

During the campaign, President-elect Donald Trump castigated U.S. trade policy, including the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA).  While the KORUS FTA was cited as an example of a “disastrous” trade deal, candidate Trump did not threatened to withdraw or renegotiate the agreement, as he did with other FTAs.  His first 100 days agenda only reiterated his pledge to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

While the KORUS agreement may be out of the limelight, there are indicators to watch for to see the future of U.S. trade policy.  First, his senior appointees for various posts will determine the extent of Trump’s economic nationalism.  He has nominated Wilbur Ross, a private equity billionaire who specializes in restructuring failed companies, particularly several in “Rust Belt” industries, as Secretary of Commerce, and noted “fair” trade attorney Robert Lightizer, to serve as the U.S. Trade Representative.  In addition, Trump has appointed two individuals to fill newly created positions within the White House – noted trade skeptic and economist, Peter Navarro, as the Director of the National Trade Council, and Jason Greenblatt, who currently is Executive Vice President of the Trump Organization, as the Special Representative for International Negotiations.  It is unclear how all these four individuals, along with free trade advocate Rex Tillerson, who was nominated by Trump to serve as his Secretary of State, will interact to shape a unified trade policy, and how much real power and authority each one of these individuals will possess.

Second, in early February, the annual trade statistics will be released by the U.S. government.  The Year to Date (YTD) trade deficit between the U.S. and the ROK in goods is slightly outpacing last year’s level ($24.07 billion for 2016 vs. $23.997 billion for 2015).  If this trend continues, there could be a renewed attention on KORUS.

Third, even if there is not a direct confrontation of KORUS in the near-term, the Trump plan to focus most of their attention on fixing agreements with Mexico and enforcing trade laws before negotiating any new bilateral deals could have ancillary spillover effects on Korea.  China is Korea’s top trading partner and Mexico is Korea’s ninth largest export market.  Mexico is also becoming a major destination for Korean foreign direct investment.  Thus, while KORUS maybe out of the cross-hairs, actions by the Trump Administration affecting other trading partners could have negative effects for the Korean economy.

North Korean Behavior in Response to a New Political Environment

With a new administration in the United States and the prospects for a new administration in South Korea this year, there is an expectation that North Korea may test the alliance and Kim Jong-un has already suggested that he will conduct an ICBM test.  Observers have tried for years to explain the timing of North Korean nuclear tests, missile tests, and other provocative acts on the basis of North Korean political anniversaries, foreign elections, and other external events such as international summits or Olympic Games. The historic correlations are weak.  It may simply be that North Koreans test their weaponry when it is time to do so on an engineering schedule.  When they are ready to test, they test.  They might wait a matter of days or weeks if tests would interfere with a major political event such as a bilateral meeting, as we would do, but that would nudge the schedule, not drive it.

The tempo of testing has picked up since Kim Jong-un came to power.  Nuclear and missile test are happening much more often than they did during the time of Kim Jong-il.  This might be occurring because Kim Jong-un is still trying to cement his power and has tied his personal prestige to weapons testing.  It may be because North Korea wants to get as far as it can, as fast as it can, before the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and China take stronger steps to try to put an end to its quest for a nuclear arsenal.  It might also reflect Kim Jong-un’s personal impatience.

Will North Korea be a Trump Administration Priority?

U.S. Administrations have limited ability to set foreign policy priorities.  It is a useful exercise to try to set priorities on the grounds that unless you know where you want to go, you are unlikely to get there.  But, foreign policy is unavoidably reactive because decisions by foreign leaders and non-state actors, natural disasters, accidents, and miscalculations require responses.  British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was quoted as answering a journalist’s question of what Prime Ministers fear most by saying, “Events, dear boy, events.”

Discounting events, North Korea should be a high foreign policy priority for the Trump Administration.  North Korea has threatened military action against the United States, South Korea and Japan and is getting closer to having a nuclear weapon that could strike the U.S. west coast.  That in itself should not be considered a watershed moment, North Korea can already threaten South Korea, Japan, and hundreds of thousands of Americans, military and civilian, living within the range of North Korean military strikes.  North Korea’s belligerency, possible instability, and grotesque human rights abuses should be of great concern to countries in the region, the U.S., and the international community.  A concerted, coordinated policy towards North Korea is necessary.

Are Sanctions Working?

The sanctions enacted this year on North Korea constitute the toughest and most comprehensive framework to date. New information in 2017 will help to gauge whether these measures are working as intended and how they can be strengthened, with China’s enforcement of new sanctions playing a key role. The effectiveness of improvements made to UN sanctions in resolution 2321 and U.S. secondary sanctions targeting financial institutions facilitating Kim Jong-un’s pursuit of hard currency greatly depends on Beijing’s willingness to cooperate with Washington. However, President-elect Donald Trump’s initial approach towards China suggests heightened tensions in the relationship over other issues may pose significant challenges for cooperation on sanctions in 2017.

Nevertheless, the continued use of sanctions as a tool on North Korea may be in question. Several candidates in South Korea’s presidential elections next year favor economic engagement with North Korea. South Korea’s return to engagement would greatly undermine the cohesion of UN sanctions, likely precipitating Russia and China—the most reluctant supporters of sanctions and North Korea’s most influential economic partners—to abandon their support. Even if these candidates are unsuccessful in their presidential bids, should the new sanctions have a limited impact in the first half of 2017 transitioning leaders in the U.S. and South Korea may consider other policy alternatives.

Special Measures Agreement/Burden Sharing 

Ever since 1991, the Republic of Korea (ROK) has provided some financial support to offset the cost of stationing U.S. troops on the peninsula.  During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump questioned on several occasions the alleged low reimbursement for stationing U.S. troops abroad.

Later this year, Korea and the United States will begin negotiations on renewing the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), which is set to expire in 2018, that lays out the terms of the burden sharing arrangement.  Last April, General Vincent Brooks testified before the U.S. Senate that Korea pays approximately 50 percent of the total non-personnel costs of the U.S. troop presence on the peninsula.  Under the current SMA, Korea’s annual payment (in won) increases by the rate of inflation.

Just as in all negotiations, one side offers its most parsimonious offer and the other side counters with its proposal to bolster its own self-interest.  Over time, the two sides come together to reach an agreement.  Marine Corps General James Mattis, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, earlier criticized President Barack Obama for “saying that our allies are freeloaders.”  Not only does the ROK already share half of the burden of the stationing costs of the U.S. military on the peninsula, but this staunch U.S. ally also has a military draft with 625,000 active duty military personnel confronting North Korea; spends 2.6 percent of its GDP on its own defense (highest among any major European or Asian ally of the U.S); and 80 percent of South Korea’s imports of military equipment over the past five years have come from the United States.  South Korea is leagues above European members of NATO in terms of alleviating the defense burden of the United States.

SMA negotiations will be tough with the Trump administration, as they have been at times in the past.  However, these talks will not undermine the alliance.  The U.S. national interest will continue to inform policymakers that no U.S. troops should be withdrawn from the ROK until the threat from North Korea is resolved.

Will RCEP Be Finalized in 2017?

The failure of TPP has turned attention to the remaining mega free trade agreement in Asia: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Negotiations were due to have finished by the end of 2015, but have been bogged down by disagreements over a range of issues. However, the breakdown of TPP may prove to be the necessary push to conclude negotiations in 2017. China, the largest member economy and key driver of the deal, has vowed to accelerate talks and is already looking ahead to lead the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), the next progression in the regional architecture.

RCEP members and even non-signatories, such as the U.S., stand to benefit from an Asia with fewer barriers to trade. Still, the deal’s avoidance of non-tariff barriers, while making consensus easier among sixteen diverse economies including Korea, offers limited gains from liberalization. If RCEP is concluded it may provide the foundation for slower and less ambitious regional integration

With RCEP in place, an emboldened Beijing could seek to displace Washington from its leadership role in the region on economic issues. However, the longer RCEP talks continue to drag on, the greater the opportunity for the U.S. to bolster its standing in Asia through bilateral agreements preferred by President-elect Donald Trump.

Will the Korean Wave Continue?

Last year was nothing if not a roller coaster for Korean cultural exports. The bombshell soap opera “Descendants of the Sun” broke records at home and abroad, raking in billions in direct and indirect profits. However, the second half of the year was marred by reports of a Chinese ban on Korean entertainment content because of Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD.

While there have been some instances that could raise suspicion, other events have proceeded as planned, indicating that this is not a blanket ban. It’s far more likely that some local organizers, skittish about the Chinese government’s harsh language on THAAD, decided not to risk a controversy. With THAAD set to be deployed later this year, this will deserve further attention as the deployment takes place.

Yet, interest in everything Korea continues to grow, and shows no sign of stopping. Cosmetics giant Amore Pacific saw a 26.7% year-on-year jump in overseas sales in Q3. And Korea already broke tourism records as of mid-November, with more than 15 million people visiting the country by that point.

It’s worth remembering that the word “hallyu” itself was originally a derogatory term created in China in the 1990s to push back against the influx of Korean media content. People have been predicting the downfall of the Korean Wave since then, yet it is stronger than ever. Expect this to continue in 2017.

Relations Between South Korea and Japan

Relations between South Korea and Japan remain as complicated as ever and 2017 could see uncertainty in the relationship. Despite the implementation of the 2015 Seoul-Tokyo agreement regarding the compensation of comfort women earlier this year, controversy and protests in South Korea have continued to overshadow the deal. In light of President Park Geun-hye’s recent impeachment, leading members of the South Korean opposition parties have increased calls for the government to reconsider the agreement. Potential presidential candidates Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo have criticized the deal and may try to restructure the deal or scrap it entirely if elected.

Despite controversy over the comfort women agreement, South Korea and Japan have continued to strengthen their defense ties. Both countries participated in regular joint military exercises with the U.S. this year and started implementation of an intelligence sharing deal earlier this month. The deal allows for intelligence sharing between the two countries regarding North Korea’s nuclear and weapons programs. Controversy over historical issues between the two countries is unlikely to subside in the near future, but the shared North Korean threat provides avenues for greater security cooperation for South Korea and Japan. Needless to say, the next South Korean president will play an instrumental role in determining the future of the relationship.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America, Phil Eskeland is the Executive Director of Operations and Policy,  Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade, Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications, Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research, and Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Image designed by Jenna Gibson of the Korea Economic Institute of America with photos from the photostreams of Gage Skidmore, Stefan Krasowski, Herman Van Rompuy, Byoung Wook, and Korea.net on flickr Creative Commons.

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New Year’s 2017 in Pyongyang: Self-Reliance by Necessity or Design?

“Previously, all the people used to sing the song We Are the Happiest in the World, feeling optimistic about the future with confidence in the great Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I will work with devotion to ensure that the past era does not remain as a moment in history but is re-presented in the present era. On this first morning of the new year I swear to become a true servant loyal to our people who faithfully supports them with a pure conscience.” – Kim Jong-un 2017 New Year Address

By William Brown

Even Kim Jong-un seemed a little melancholy in his New Year’s speech, reflecting perhaps the sad state of international affairs everywhere this winter.  He continues to forge ahead, saying he wants to improve both the economy and the nuclear force, something the outgoing U.S. administration says he can’t do.  For him the Obama administration’s slow shift—like all previous administrations it began by simply promising North Korea could not have nuclear weapons, and ends with its intelligence chief essentially giving up on denuclearization, while resorting to still more sanctions—would appear to be a victory of sorts, even more since in some ways the economy has improved during Kim’s five-year tenure despite sanctions. Ironically, as growing weakness in his socialist “command” economy gives way to a rise in market activities, mobility and productivity of labor is thriving, pushing out GDP growth at least as measured by South Korea’s Bank of Korea. People now can use taxis when only a few years ago, mobility even by bicycle was frowned upon.  And use of money—two U.S. dollar bills for the taxi ride—has devoured the old ration and permit system. Individual incentive would thus seem to be offsetting the continuing drop in foreign trade and investment that the West counted on to stop the nuclear program. But even with this burst in market activity, Kim seemed to apologize for not advancing the economy faster, cognizant no doubt of big troubles in the nation’s dilapidated infrastructure and in the dollarized monetary system which he can’t control. And now, by speaking of the yet incomplete ICBM program, Kim has sparked a new promise from incoming President-elect Trump to stop that program, ensuring the 70-year fight with America will continue.

Disappointingly, Kim’s speech offered nothing in the way of economic reforms that could regularize the market activities that are bringing economic growth and that could launch North Korea on a China reform-type path, but instead he harkened back on an ill-defined “five-year plan,” 70- and 200-day “speed battles” and other socialist rhetoric, not I suspect, what the people wanted to hear.  One may ask how long can he get away with this.  By not addressing the increasingly obvious contradictions between the socialist and market systems simultaneously at play in the economy, he stokes confusion and eventually, one would expect, social disorder.  Market prices and wages are so different from socialist prices and wages that less ideologically pure individuals are becoming rich playing the systems against each other—taking free, state supplied, electricity and selling it from car batteries to charge cell phones—while steadfast state sector employees and complacent farmers, and the loyal military, remain exceedingly poor, stuck to a wage system them gives them almost no money and increasingly sparse rations.  Given his speech, it is not clear Kim understands his dangers, both with America and with his people.  Or maybe he does hence his mood.

 Kim also said little about the country’s abysmal foreign relations, except to emphasize the need for “self-reliance” in the heavily sanctioned country, using less ideologically tainted verbiage than the old “juche” of his father and grandfather, and for eventual unification with South Korea to take place in an “independent way”, meaning, to be sure, that the U.S. must withdraw.  Given President Park’s trouble, he might think the time is getting closer. But the people have heard this over-and-over and might be tired of the quixotic politics of their rich southern brothers.

North Korea-China Trade 2010-2016

Kim, of course, does not mention the ever-lengthening list of UN sanctions—a new unanimous Security Council Resolution, 2321, was agreed upon on November 30—and U.S. and others added to their bilateral sanctions. And even pundits and former administration experts now say the sanctions are having no impact on Kim’s decision-making.  But they are impacting the economy, and the people’s livelihood, a troublesome aspect of the sanctions process that seems not to be well studied. Sanctions can cut off foreign exchange to the government, and limit its ability to procure foreign products and expertise needed for the nuclear and missile programs but, by limiting free market activities, they also can add to the domestic authority of the sanctioned regime and help it control its borders. This later is particularly important when a socialist or partial command economy such as North Korea is involved. Such regimes must prevent foreign buyers and sellers from corrupting and distorting their internal socialist pricing and wage mechanisms or chaos will break out. Economic planners in Pyongyang thus will use foreign imposed sanctions to help control exports and imports in ways that better fit their plan. They may want to stop the export of coal, for instance, to supply more to the overburdened electric power system.  Moreover, when quotas are involved, as with the new coal sanctions, valuable licenses can be sold for ready cash by government authorities, absorbing dollars from the emerging private sector. The Iraq “food for oil” UN sanctions of the 1990s stand as a case in point. The program allowed Hussein regime officials to earn billions of dollars of pocket money while gaining socialist control over the country’s large agriculture sector.[1] North Korea’s economy was socialized well prior to sanctions, but we should ask if sanctions are allowing the regime to fend off reforms that collapsed such systems everywhere else in the communist world.

Official trade data from partner countries all over the world makes it clear that whereas Pyongyang’s decision-making may not be being influenced by the sanctions, actual trade, and thus the economy, is by now strongly affected.  With the important exception of China, North Korea’s trade relations have by now been shattered, everywhere. Even Russia, which argues in the UN sanctions meetings that the North Korean economy should not be targeted, trades exceedingly little with North Korea, after being its most important partner for decades prior to the demise of the Soviet Union. Only three years ago, it announced with great fanfare the resolution of a $10 billion debt overhang and billions of dollars in proposed investments in the rail and mining sectors. Russian two-way trade with North Korea through October 2016 amounted to only $60 million, and $40 million of that appears to be transshipments of Russian bituminous coal to South Korea and China via the ice-free Najin-Sonbong port, using a newly refurbished rail link to Vladivostok. Indian and Thai trade also fell off sharply through the first three quarters.  European trade has gradually shrunk to near nothing–$23 million in two way trade over the January to September period, joining Japan, South Korea and the U.S. with virtually no commercial relationships with North Korea. In 2016, it seems likely that Philippines was the only country in the world to significantly increase its North Korea trade.

China, of course, remains the outlier as might be expected given its long border with North Korea and its history of protection of the regime. November data show trade continued to climb even after the “strongest ever sanctions” in April, largely due to a big jump in North Korean coal prices.  The issues with Chinese implementation of sanctions may now crystalize as misunderstandings regarding the April sanctions appear to have been straightened out in the November 30 rulings. Most importantly, Beijing accepted strong limits on imports of anthracite coal, Pyongyang’s largest foreign exchange earner. For the month of December 2016, the Security Council allowed North Korea to export–China to import since there are no other buyers–one million tons with a value of up to $53 million dollars. This would be about half the value and volume of previous months in 2015 and 2016. (In comparison, Chinese data for November released a few weeks later, showed imports of 1.9 million tons worth $139 million, a jump from October since prices rose from $55 to $73 a ton, and volume rose from 1.8 million tons.)  For 2017, annual limits are set at 7.5 million tons and $401 million dollars, whichever is smaller, and represent a big cutback from about 21 million tons likely shipped in 2016 valued at about $1.1 billion. Given the recent rise in prices, and higher capacity, the loss in foreign exchange earnings to Pyongyang in 2017 would be upwards of a billion dollars. Since the country has virtually no international credit, if not offset by exports of other products, this would mean its worldwide imports would need to fall by an equivalent amount.

Within weeks we will see what Chinese Customs has to say about the December imports and if the letter of the sanctions rules are being accepted.  Whereas Chinese officials seem to be highly proficient and rule oriented, their behavior in not reporting the far most important trade item—Chinese shipments of crude oil to North Korea apparently provided at no cost—raises important questions. (The graphic above adds to the official data an estimate of the value of these Chinese crude oil exports of about $50 million a month in 2014 and $33 million a month since then.) But these questions also go to some of the core difficulties of sanctions implementation.  Will China focus on individual North Korean shippers or the Chinese buyers, giving or selling the latter licenses to import the coal? And on the North Korean side, who and how will decisions be made as to which production units can make the sales?  If Pyongyang can exert monopoly power over its exporters, as seems likely, it can raise the price further so that it can maximize profits on the smaller volume of coal that it ships.  Any exporter that makes it in under the Chinese quota will thus gain higher profits and more foreign exchange than without sanctions. There seems to be no way to prevent North Korean trade officials from allowing their favorite entities to export the coal, and we might surmise that these are more than likely to be military or state run mines, who will reap more profits, not less. Private or less protected coal mines, or coal siphoned off from the state’s electric power system, will likely take hits.

An unscientific task, to be sure, but if we try to count winners and losers of the new coal sanctions, the ledger might look something like this.  A more careful study needs to take place if these sanctions are truly to be applied in a “smart” way.


  1. North Korea’s thermal electric power sector (under socialist pricing, electric power is virtually free and power plants are allocated nearly free coal by the plan.)  Mines thus try to export coal to earn foreign exchange rather than fill plans, but with sanctions this will be difficult.
  2. Central planners and traditional socialists in Pyongyang will clearly like foreign sanctions since they will help control the domestic allocation of coal per the plan, and energy use more generally. Foreign sanctions are thus the equivalent of a double-sided wall. Authorities on the North Korean side work to prevent trades while authorities on the Chinese side do the same.
  3. North Korea’s state and military coal mines, or any units that are privileged by the government’s licensing system, will be able to raise export prices, and garner higher profits. It would not be surprising to see scientific units with their own coal mines gain, not lose, from the sanctions.
  4. North Korean household users of anthracite coal since more coal will be available at lower cost.
  5. Regime authorities who accrue coal export licensing powers that can be sold internally.  To the degree that Pyongyang already holds monopoly powers, this will not be applicable.
  6. The Chinese government which likewise can sell import licenses or raise tariff revenue. And Chinese coal producers will be winners since with less competition they can raise prices.


  1. Marginal and private North Korean coal mines, and their workforces, who are unable for financial or political reasons to obtain export licenses and will thus be forced to reduce output and sell it to the less lucrative domestic market.  Layoffs of miners would seem likely.
  2. Private sector entities that support these mines and that benefit from the funds that circulate from their generally market based earnings.
  3. Chinese customers of North Korean anthracite who will face higher prices or tariffs.
  4. Bureaucracies, and thus the public, in both North Korea and China may well be corrupted by the licensing process.

At first blush it does not seem these will add pressure on Kim to denuclearize, and might do just the opposite–reward an inefficient socialist system while penalizing an emerging, market based system.  They may raise the costs and perhaps slow the development of nuclear weapons, but also may add to the regime’s sense of domestic control, and thus raise the benefits of the nuclear weapons program as well—much like a “poison pill” saves a company from an unwanted take-over.  But with some changes—for example if Beijing only allowed imports from private-like coal mines, or mines that paid market wages, or mines that had limited access to the government—the incentive structure might be reversed putting more pressure on the regime to come to the table. After all, the poison bottle might spill over and Kim would have to react, maybe by next year’s New Year’s speech.  But a least as of this current reading, such changes do not yet seem likely.

William Brown is an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from (stephan)’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

[1] The program allowed Iraq to export crude oil but forced the dollars earned to only be used to import food and medicines. The regime sold licenses for these activities which gave it funds to illicitly import weapons and to provide pocket money for officials and to corrupt foreign organizations, including the UN itself.  The program, moreover, was devastating to Iraqi farmers who not only could not import needed fertilizers and farm equipment but who had to compete with virtually free grain coming in from abroad.  Hussein took advantage to socialize farming and by controlling food, the sanctions helped him control the country.  See:  http://www.cfr.org/iraq/iraq-oil-food-scandal/p7631#p6

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.